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Earth Still Awaits Effects Of Large Solar Storm

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LOS ANGELES (CBS/AP) — The largest solar storm in five years has engulfed Earth, but scientists say the planet has lucked out so far.

The storm arrived more peacefully Thursday morning than it could have. Scientists say that could change as the storm spends the day shaking the planet’s magnetic field. It could disrupt technology but also spread colorful Northern Lights.

The storm started with a massive solar flare earlier in the week and grew as it raced outward from the sun. The storm arrived at Earth about 3 a.m. PST.

So far officials say there have been no reports of problems with power grids, GPS, satellites or other technologies that are often disrupted by solar storms.

The storm is part of the sun’s normal 11-year cycle, which is supposed to reach peak storminess next year. Solar storms don’t harm people, but they do disrupt technology. And during the last peak around 2002, experts learned that GPS was vulnerable to solar outbursts.

Because new technology has flourished since then, scientists could discover that some new systems are also at risk, said Jeffrey Hughes, director of the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at Boston University.

A decade ago, this type of solar storm happened a couple of times a year, Hughes said.

“This is a good-size event, but not the extreme type,” said Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the federal government’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

The region of the sun that erupted can still send more blasts our way, said Joe Kunches, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo. He said another set of active sunspots is ready to aim at Earth right after this.

“This is a big sun spot group, particularly nasty,” NASA solar physicist David Hathaway said. “Things are really twisted up and mixed up. It keeps flaring.”

Storms like this start with sun spots, Hathaway said.

Then comes an initial solar flare of subatomic particles that resemble a filament coming out of the sun. That part already hit Earth only minutes after the initial burst, bringing radio and radiation disturbances.

After that comes the coronal mass ejection, which looks like a growing bubble and takes a couple days to reach Earth. It’s that ejection that could cause magnetic disruptions Thursday.

“It could give us a bit of a jolt,” NASA solar physicist Alex Young said.

The storm follows an earlier, weaker solar eruption that happened Sunday, Kunches said.

For North America, the good part of a solar storm — the one that creates more noticeable auroras or Northern Lights — will peak Thursday evening. Auroras could dip as far south as the Great Lakes states or lower, Kunches said, but a full moon will make them harder to see.

Auroras are “probably the treat we get when the sun erupts,” Kunches said.

As “CBS This Morning” reported back in January, a solar storm hit Earth, giving Canada and Scandinavia a beautiful show. But it forced some utilities to boost power to compensate for electrical interference. It interfered with some satellite transmissions and forced some planes to reroute because of radio interference near the North Pole.

Solar storms have three ways they can disrupt technology on Earth: with magnetic, radio and radiation emissions. This is an unusual situation, when all three types of solar storm disruptions are likely to be strong, Kunches said. That makes it the strongest overall since December 2006.

That means “a whole host of things” could follow, he said.

North American utilities are monitoring for abnormalities on their grids and have contingency plans, said Kimberly Mielcarek, spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a consortium of electricity grid operators.

In 1989, a strong solar storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec, causing 6 million people to lose power.

Solar storms can also make global positioning systems less accurate and cause GPS outages.

The storm could trigger communication problems and additional radiation around the north and south poles — a risk that will probably force airlines to reroute flights. Some already have done so, Kunches said.

Satellites could be affected, too. NASA spokesman Rob Navias said the space agency isn’t taking any extra precautions to protect astronauts on the International Space Station from added radiation.

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